In 1967 aircraft manufacturer Dassault, with support from the French government, embarked on the design and construction of a new narrow-body airliner to compete with the American Boeing 737 and McDonnell Douglas DC-9 airliners. When the first prototype flew four years later, it could carry 20 passengers more than the Boeing 737 despite using the same engines. The aircraft seemed well-placed to become a serious European competitor in the short-haul market, fifteen years before the Airbus A320 first flew.
Instead the Mercure was one of the greatest commercial failures in aviation history. Dassault managed to sell only eleven aircraft (including one of the prototypes) and it is generally accepted that the greatest problem was the aircraft’s range; with full payload it was around half that of the contemporary American designs. This was especially seen as a handicap outside Europe.
The involvement in the project of Air Inter, an airline that operated exclusively internally within France, was bound to push the design towards short ranges. Yet ultimately it was a deliberate decision by Dassault to optimise the aircraft for very short haul operations, believing there was a market opportunity for such an aircraft. Dassault finally settled on a range of 1700km (1060 miles) with full payload.
Furthermore, if the Mercure’s range was insufficient for the furthest routes from a central European location such as Frankfurt, consider what the effects would have been for an airline on the outskirts of Europe. A Greek airline operating the Mercure would have been unable to offer flights to Paris, the whole of Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Scandinavia, Ireland or the UK.
Why did Dassault Market the Mercure as a Boeing 737 Alternative?
The Mercure was incapable of replacing a Boeing 737 even in European markets, yet the aircraft was relentlessly marketed as a viable alternative. The Mercure did indeed have the capacity of its American competitors, but this advantage was crippled by the aircraft’s inability to fly the same routes as the American aircraft. Furthermore the French government at the time was keen to break the American stranglehold on the short-range aircraft market, and part-funded the development of the Mercure. Perhaps the French government would not have been so keen to support a less ambitious aircraft.
Had the Mercure not been sold as a short-haul airliner but as a large regional jet instead, things might have been different. While the Mercure’s range was far shorter than that of the Boeing 737, it was comparable to that of other regional aircraft. There have been many successful (albeit smaller) aircraft with a shorter range than the Mercure. The ATR 42/72 and Bombardier Dash 8 families have ranges of around 1500km (930 miles), yet have combined sales of over 3000 units. Whether the market would have accepted such a large regional jet as the Mercure is debatable, but had Dassault at least sold it as the large regional jet that it was, it might have found more of the customers that it needed.